Jex-Blake, Sophia (1840–1912)

views updated

Jex-Blake, Sophia (1840–1912)

British physician and education reformer who was one of the first female physicians in Europe. Name variations: Sophia Jex Blake. Born on January 21, 1840, in Sussex, England; died on January 7, 1912, in Sussex; daughter of Thomas Jex-Blake and Maria (Cubitts) Jex-Blake; never married; no children.

Entered Queen's College (1858); published A Visit to Some American Schools (1867); started medical studies in Edinburgh (1869); published Medical Women (1873); helped establish the London School of Medicine for Women (1874); obtained medical license (1877); opened private practice (1878); founded Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women (1886); retired from practice (1899).

One of the first female physicians in Europe, Sophia Jex-Blake was a leader in the struggle for higher education for women in Great Britain. She was born in Sussex in 1840, the youngest of three children of Maria Jex-Blake and Thomas Jex-Blake, a prosperous lawyer who gave his offspring a conservative religious upbringing. Jex-Blake was emotionally close to her parents, a bond which would remain strong throughout their lives. The Jex-Blakes provided an elementary education to Sophia until, at age eight, she was sent to boarding school.

Imaginative and intelligent, Jex-Blake wanted to learn more than her ill-prepared tutors could teach her, even as a child. Throughout the 19th century, boarding schools for girls were designed to provide only a rudimentary education along with the household skills that prepared them for marriage and motherhood. The lack of formal academic study and the strict discipline left Sophia bored, subject to tantrums and misbehavior. Between ages 8 and 16, she had to change schools six times. Nevertheless, by 16, she had managed to secure an education well enough to convince her that she wanted to both advance her own knowledge and to find a vocation other than the expected one of wife and mother.

In the 1850s, teaching in a public school or as a governess was the only professional career open to middle-class women. Having been frustrated in her desire for a formal education such as boys could receive, Jex-Blake saw a career in teaching as a way to perhaps provide such an education to other girls. But she needed to further her own training first. She therefore convinced her disapproving parents to allow her to enter Queen's College in London in 1858. Queen's College was one of the few women's colleges in England, and the only one dedicated to preparing women to be teachers. Jex-Blake thrived in her new academic environment; for the first time, she was in an institution that valued education for women. She took a full load of courses, studying higher mathematics, English, French, natural philosophy, and theology.

Her rapid progress and her natural ability in mathematics led the administration to offer Sophia the position of math tutor for the other students, a rare opportunity for a first-year student. It took some time to persuade her father, who opposed his daughter's plan to work for money, to let her accept the position. Yet instructing other students proved very satisfying to Sophia, further convincing her that teaching was her calling. In July 1859, she passed her first-year examinations; she continued as a math tutor for the next several terms. She also volunteered as an instructor for charitable organizations which provided poor women with the job skills needed to work in retailing, which was safer and better paid than unskilled factory work.

Despite her success, in 1862 Jex-Blake abruptly chose to leave Queen's College to continue her studies with the Edinburgh Ladies' Educational Association in Scotland. Her reason for leaving London appears to have been her broken relationship with another Queen's College student, Octavia Hill , later a renowned social reformer, with whom Sophia had formed an intimate friendship. When Hill suddenly refused to see Jex-Blake for reasons which remain obscure, Sophia was devastated, as her letters from this period show. Apparently she could not face living in London or attending the same school as Octavia. Yet Jex-Blake did not remain long in Edinburgh. Quickly growing dissatisfied with the level of instruction offered by the Ladies' Educational Association, she began to inquire about educational opportunities abroad.

While she sought a new direction for her studies, Jex-Blake became involved for the first time in the emerging struggle for women to enter the medical profession. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson , whom Sophia met in Edinburgh, was petitioning

the administration of Edinburgh University for the right to enter its medical program. Jex-Blake tried to help by canvassing the university faculty members for support, making personal calls on the faculty and writing letters to the administrators. Anderson's application was denied, but the experience introduced Jex-Blake to the medical women's cause and to political activism on behalf of women.

In July 1862, she left Edinburgh for Germany to seek a teaching position and broaden her own education. She found a temporary job teaching English at the Grand Ducal Institute for Women in Mannheim, but homesickness brought her back to her parents' home in Sussex in 1863. Less than two years later, Jex-Blake left home again, this time to complete a long-planned tour of American colleges.

Pall Mall Gazette">

She it was, more than anyone else, who compelled the gates of the medical profession to be opened to women; she never lost heart in her Cause.

Pall Mall Gazette

Her first stop was Boston, where among other notables she was introduced to writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. She also came to be friends with Dr. Lucy Sewall , resident physician at the New England Hospital for Women and one of the first American women doctors. Jex-Blake then set off by train across the eastern and central United States, touring universities and public schools and paying particular attention to the opportunities for American women. Following the trip, Sophia, who had sometimes considered a writing career for herself, would turn her detailed notes into a book manuscript of her observations on the functioning of the American educational system. The book was eventually sold to the Macmillan house, which published it to some success in 1867.

On her return to Boston, Jex-Blake's planned departure for England was delayed when the New England Hospital offered her a job as bookkeeper. She readily accepted, and soon became the hospital's de facto pharmacist as well when that position fell vacant. Under the doctors' guidance, she made up medicines and accompanied the doctors on their rounds.

Her friendship and admiration of Lucy Sewall and her experience with the often destitute female patients opened Sophia's eyes to the possibility of a medical career. Certainly there was enormous prejudice against female doctors both in the U.S. and England, and she knew that Sewall and the few other American women in medicine had fought hard for the right to practice. Even though there were a few female physicians, there was no legal guarantee that women had a right to practice medicine and no guarantee that the few medical colleges which currently admitted women would continue to do so. Indeed, the increasing numbers of women seeking a medical education and fear of competition by women was causing some institutions to revoke inclusive admission policies. Yet Jex-Blake found the science involved exciting and helping the sick rewarding, combining the mental challenges and the sense of usefulness she wanted. She was not yet convinced, though, that medicine could be her calling.

However, during a visit home to England in 1866 she renewed her friendship with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Seeing Anderson, who had succeeded in obtaining a pharmacist's license in England and was now developing a thriving private practice, was the inspiration Jex-Blake needed to turn her from her plans for a teaching career to medicine. The unexpected support and encouragement of her parents, who had only a few years before opposed the idea of their daughter working at all, gave Sophia the confidence she needed to return to Boston and begin classes at the New England Female Medical College.

As with most of her previous schools, however, Jex-Blake was not content with the level of instruction she received. Wanting access to the same education men received, she wrote to the president of Harvard University in 1867, requesting admission. Her request was denied, but she did convince several faculty members to give her instruction at Massachusetts General Hospital. In March 1868, she was accepted as a student at the new Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary. The college and infirmary had been founded by Elizabeth Blackwell , the first American woman doctor. Jex-Blake was never to actually attend the school, however, for just as classes began she learned of her father's death in England and hastened home to be with her mother.

For the first few months back in England, Jex-Blake distracted herself from her grief by researching and writing an essay on the history of women in medicine in an attempt to refute the arguments of the medical women's opponents. The essay was subsequently published in a collection on women's education in England, edited by the noted feminist Josephine Butler . Yet when she finished the piece, Jex-Blake found herself restless, unable to give up her desire to become a doctor. There were also the difficulties of living at home after so much time living independently; although they cared about one another deeply, Sophia and her mother had always been too strong-willed to live together peacefully. Realizing that they could not share a residence for long, they both looked for new outlets for Sophia's ambitions.

In March 1869, Jex-Blake applied to Edinburgh University's medical program. Previously, the faculty had voted against the admission of her friend Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, but this time they voted to allow Sophia to enroll, although the decision was overturned when male students protested. Undaunted, Jex-Blake began a vigorous campaign on behalf of herself and four other women who sought admission. After months of effort and much heated public debate over the propriety of female doctors and the suitability of women for work in general, the five women were allowed to enroll in the medical degree course for the winter term of 1870. They were taught in separate classes and subjected to higher fees than male students, but overall Sophia was elated at the opportunity to follow at last, at age 30, the same academic course as men.

Yet soon new problems arose. Some of the faculty stopped teaching separate classes for the women, which they were not required to do. The Royal Infirmary, the teaching hospital which provided the clinical experience required for the medical degree, then announced that it would not instruct the female students. Jex-Blake and the—by then—six other women (Edith Pechey-Phipson , Mary Anderson , Isabel Thorne , Matilda Chaplin , Helen Evans , and Emily Bovell ), referred to as the "Edinburgh Seven," were also subjected to harassment by male students. Matters came to a head in November when several hundred men tried to block the women's entry to their classroom. They were led by a student of Jex-Blake's most influential opponent, the professor and doctor Robert Christison. Sophia, who had emerged as a natural leader among the women, refused to back down and forced her way into the class. The "Riot at Surgeons Hall" brought considerable positive publicity for the plight of the women, who found new allies and sympathizers throughout the city.

Although they received instruction in some courses, the women were confronted with one administrative barrier after another for the next year until under Jex-Blake's leadership they finally filed a lawsuit against the university for its failure to allow them to complete their program. They won the suit, and a campaign fought both on campus and in the press resulted in their admission to the Royal Infirmary for hospital training. Once again the path to women's educational progress was irregular and its victories temporary, as the university won its appeal against the women and managed to close itself to female students once again. Although Sophia had garnered broad public support, especially following the publication in 1873 of her Medical Women, an expanded version of her earlier essay, the university seemed tireless in its efforts to discredit her and hinder her pursuit of a medical license.

Realizing that this series of gains and losses could continue indefinitely, and that the medical degree was to be denied to her by the university, Jex-Blake began to look for another means of finishing her medical studies. In the meantime, she and the other female students received haphazard instruction from several sympathetic medical faculty. Unwilling to take Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's advice and finish her studies in France, Jex-Blake and her supporters turned to Parliament to continue their fight.

A supportive member of Parliament introduced a bill into the House of Commons to allow the Scottish universities the right to admit women. If passed it would remove the legal basis of the university's opposition to teaching women. Again Sophia put herself in the center of a deeply controversial issue which generated an abundance of correspondence and editorials in the London and Edinburgh press. Yet even when her character was attacked, Jex-Blake remained assertive, confident, and firm in her public responses.

In 1874, with the parliamentary bill delayed, Jex-Blake moved to London and led the founding of the London School of Medicine for Women. Physicians friendly to the women's cause agreed to serve as instructors. The school opened in the winter of 1874–75 with 14 students. The bill to allow Scottish universities to admit women was defeated narrowly in 1875; determined to continue their challenge further, Jex-Blake and two other women applied to the Royal College of Surgeons to be examined for the License in Midwifery. The examiners resigned in protest rather than administer the examination to women.

Yet within a few months Jex-Blake's allies in Parliament, encouraged by supporters of the medical women's movement, pushed through a bill allowing all the medical institutions of Great Britain to admit women. Two Irish institutions indicated their willingness to examine female candidates; to prepare for the exams, Jex-Blake spent several months concentrating on her neglected studies in Switzerland, where she passed the exam for the MD degree in the spring of 1877. She then returned to Britain where she passed, along with four other women, the examination at the College of Physicians in Dublin. The goal she had sought for so long was achieved—Sophia Jex-Blake was now a licensed medical practitioner.

To add to her happiness, her beloved London School was finally affiliated with a hospital, so the students could freely obtain clinical experience. This meant that after years of struggle, women students could attend a medical college which provided the necessary academic and clinical instruction and then be allowed to take the exams required for a practitioner's license. It was a stunning accomplishment, and its supporters recognized Jex-Blake for the leading role she had played in its achievement.

With her achievement, however, Jex-Blake suddenly lacked the direction and decisiveness which had characterized her for over a decade. It was not until May 1878 that she opened a private practice, not in London but in Edinburgh, becoming Scotland's only female doctor. She developed a prosperous practice, even though most of her patients were working-class women, and high demand led her to open an outpatient clinic for the very poor. She also found time to remain involved with the London School and with political developments which might concern the status of female medical practitioners.

In 1881, Maria Jex-Blake died, attended by her daughter. Sophia was devastated and withdrew from public life to mourn. Despite their conflicting personalities, they had remained close, and Sophia had often found in her mother the emotional support she needed to continue her political struggles, especially after her father's death. Her mother's passing was followed closely by the death of a young assistant at Jex-Blake's clinic; the combined loss threw Sophia into a deep depression. Her friends had to close her practice and find other physicians to take on her patients, as she became incapacitated and was unable to work. Mentally and physically exhausted, Jex-Blake went to stay at a friend's rural estate to recuperate, but it was almost two years before she practiced medicine again. Late in 1883, having recovered her health and her spirits, she set up a new, larger medical office and soon her practice was again thriving. The outpatient clinic which her friends had kept open to serve the poor was enlarged into a small hospital, the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women.

Another period of active political work began in 1885, when several female medical students of Edinburgh University asked for Jex-Blake's aid in arranging for separate classes, since the university still required women to be taught separately from men. For Jex-Blake, this became a call for the establishment of a women's medical school similar to the London School. By 1887, under Jex-Blake's direction, the school was formally founded as the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women; soon Sophia, as dean, had negotiated with a hospital to provide clinical training to her students, making full instruction in a medical degree program available for the first time to Scottish women.

The school's first year of courses passed peacefully, but in 1888 conflicts erupted between Jex-Blake and some of the students. As dean, Jex-Blake showed the same determination and unyielding personality that had served her well in her years of struggle against powerful institutions. Privately to her friends, Sophia revealed a playful and cheery disposition. However, she felt that strict discipline and strong leadership were necessary to maintain the privileges and reputation of her students in an educational system which still saw them as less capable than men. Several of her students were outspoken in their resentment of her often inflexible rules. When two students were expelled for their rebellious behavior, they filed a successful lawsuit against Jex-Blake for interrupting their education; soon afterwards, several students left Jex-Blake's school to found a new medical college for women. It was a serious blow to Sophia's pride and to the financial security of her school. The rival college's affiliation with the prestigious Edinburgh Royal Infirmary led growing numbers of aspiring women doctors to choose it over Sophia's school.

Through the early 1890s, Jex-Blake was a delegate of the Scottish Universities Commission, speaking at its meetings and providing information to the commissioners on the status of Scottish education. In 1894, she was delighted to learn that the commission had forced the opening of Edinburgh University's medical examinations to women. No longer did women have to go to London or Ireland to complete their exams. She spent the rest of the decade struggling to keep her school solvent, but by 1898 it was forced to close for lack of students. Two years previously, she had tendered her resignation from the governing council of the London School of Medicine for Women due to her disagreements with its dean, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Thus Jex-Blake who had been instrumental in founding two medical colleges now found herself, at age 58, outside the educational system altogether.

Although she was disappointed at the failure of the Edinburgh school, in some ways its closing was fortuitous, as her advancing age and years of hard work were taking a toll on her health. She terminated her practice in 1899 after 16 years, and sold the building to the commission directing the flourishing Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary. The hospital was re-established as Bruntsfield Hospital in the new building, where it remained in operation until 1989.

As for Jex-Blake, she bought a house in Sussex and retired permanently from medicine. She was not alone in retirement, however. A former student at the Edinburgh School, Margaret Todd had obtained her medical license in 1894. Yet after only five years in private practice, she gave up her hard-won medical career to share Sophia's home, where they farmed, read, wrote, and entertained visiting family and friends. Jex-Blake had never married, and from her letters and diaries it is clear that she never regretted having giving up the life of marriage and motherhood when she pursued a career. Yet hers was not a lonely life; she had always cultivated intimate and loving relationships with other women, who provided her with emotional closeness and support.

Her relationship with Margaret Todd was perhaps the most meaningful of her personal relationships; despite the 20 years' difference between them, they shared similar political and religious values, and as the years passed they developed a shared past of activism in women's educational reform. In addition to being a doctor, Todd was a fairly successful novelist. Jex-Blake supported Todd's writing career, which continued during their years in Sussex, and Margaret cared for Sophia as her health failed.

Sophia Jex-Blake died on January 7, 1912, at their Sussex home, at age 71. She willed to Margaret all of her possessions, including her extensive collection of a lifetime of correspondence. In 1918, Todd published a biography of Sophia based on her papers and letters, which she apparently then destroyed in accordance with Jex-Blake's wishes. Margaret Todd committed suicide at age 58 only a few months after the publication of The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake.


Roberts, Shirley. Sophia Jex-Blake: A Woman Pioneer in Nineteenth-century Medical Reform. NY: Routledge, 1993.

Todd, Margaret G. The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake. London: Macmillan, 1918.

suggested reading:

Bonner, Thomas N. To the Ends of the Earth: Women's Search for Education in Medicine. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Kamm, Josephine. Hope Deferred: Girls' Education in English History. London: Methuen, 1965.

Levin, Beatrice. Women and Medicine. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Laura York , Riverside, California